'The White Ribbon'

Dir. Michael Haneke
(2009, R, 144 min)
★ ★ ½

The first twenty minutes and the last twenty minutes of The White Ribbon are intriguing. The hundred minutes in the middle are a tough sit. After it was over, my thoughts overflowed. Written and directed by Michael Haneke (Caché, Funny Games), it’s set in a rural German town on the eve of World War I and concerns itself with the children — children who will grow up to be the adults of the Third Reich. Searching the film’s IMDb page, I notice that the child characters have names, but not the adults, who are known as the Baron, the Pastor, the Steward, the Doctor, and so on. They’re not individuals, but examples of a social order. The children are products of that order, and we all know how well that turned out.

Haneke, with grim, haunting austerity, is working out how a generation of children became the perpetrators of genocide and highlights a fearsome system of corporal punishment, religious strictures, and sexual shame as the focal point of their young lives. A disturbing scene shows a young teenage boy delivering a cane for his father to beat him with; Haneke’s stationary, detached camera waits outside the closed door, and we hear the whipping and screams. The same boy is later warned against masturbating in cruel, horrific terms; he cries, overcome by the weight of his perceived sin, while a cross hovers over his shoulder in the background.

But these powerful scenes and their dark, fascinating implications are hampered by the screenplay, which includes so many characters and side-stories that I spent much of the running time trying to remember which children belonged to which parents. Haneke cuts between storylines abruptly; just as we make an emotional connection to one, another picks up. Character behavior seems arbitrary because there’s not enough time to develop them properly. There’s a moment when a casket is shown in a prolonged wide shot, and it took me most of the scene to remember who had died. Is this new information, I wondered, or one of the many plates Haneke is already spinning?

The White Ribbon includes a lot of very good scenes, but it’s too long and fragmented. My rating of the film is tentative and a bit generous. It doesn’t play well on a first viewing — it’s slow, tedious — but a key revelation at the end of the film might enhance the subtext on a second.

But I’m in no hurry to watch it again.